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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Films of 2013

As I note every December, I watch a lot of movies, though most are viewed on my television -- on DVD, or from DVR recordings, or streamed from Netflix. Because I simply do not see that many new films in the theater, I cannot today write a credible post on the best movies of 2013. After all, I have not yet seen most of the highly touted films released in late December. Eventually, of course, I will watch them.

This year, I missed many of the summer blockbusters as well.

Indeed, most of the best films I saw this past year were recent films that I originally missed in the theaters -- or were late 2012 films that I viewed in theaters during early 2013.

To make this abbreviated 2013 list (split, as usual, into two sub-lists), I scanned the top grossing movies of the year, as well as IMDB's most popular titles for 2013. In rank order of my preference, these were the best 2013 films I saw this year, so far as I can recall:

American Hustle **
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire **
Side Effects
The Way Way Back **
Blackfish (documentary)
Europa Report
Upstream Color

I must say that this is a fairly weak crop of films and genuinely reflects the fact that I did not yet see most of the Oscar-bait movies that are in theaters right now.

The exception is American Hustle, which I wrote about last week. When I exited the theater, I overheard some of the younger viewers complaining about the film being too slow and boring. My daughters had friends who walked out or witnessed people walking out while they were seeing it.

But I liked it.

Mud might garner some attention by the Academy Awards, but I seriously doubt that any of the rest of my top list will be noticed (except, perhaps, in special effects or other technical categories, such as costuming or sound).

The second Hunger Games film is very good, fairly loyal to the book, and sure to help Jennifer Lawrence make millions and millions in the future. The rest of the list includes some films with provocative social or political messages though they are not especially heavy-handed (for the most part). I recommend them and think most movie buffs will enjoy them.

The following list includes the remaining 2013 movies I viewed during the year. They are not ranked very carefully, though I think that the ones near the top are superior to the ones near the bottom.

Computer Chess
Room 237
We're the Millers **
Now You See Me
It's a Disaster
This is the End **
The World's End
Warm Bodies
The Heat
The Bling Ring

** I saw these films in the theater.

That's right, we went to the theater twice during the summer to view stupid comedies with lots of drug-related humor. Yawn.

I also saw a number of comedic post-apocalyptic films this year (one is also in the drug-humor category) and thought that It's a Disaster was the best of the bunch. Both This is the End and The World's End seemed promising at first, but the writing was not up to par once the disasters struck. Warm Bodies borrows greatly from Romeo and Juliet, which is about the best that can be said about it. I rarely laughed during The Heat, though my spouse seemed to enjoy it far more than I did.

Computer Chess is a nerdy period film that is quite quirky and well worth your time on Netflix. Room 237 is a sure-to-be-cult documentary that explores some really odd theories about Stanley Kubrick's The Shining.

I found The Bling Ring to be fairly tedious and lacking in story. It was like a prolonged music video -- but by a band that is not very interesting.

Here's the annual list of movies I intend to see in the future (hopefully in 2014): 12 Years a Slave, 42, 56 Up, Admission, All is Lost, Anchorman 2, Before Midnight, Blue Jasmine, Captain Phillips, Cockneys vs. Zombies, Dallas Buyers Club, Despicable Me 2, Dirty Wars, Don Jon, Drinking Buddies, The East, Ender's Game, Enough Said, Frances Ha, Fruitvale Station, Gravity, Her, How I Live Now, Inside Llewyn Davis, Iron Man 3, Lee Daniels' The Butler, Love is All You Need, Manhunt, Much Ado About Nothing, Nebraska, Oblivion, Our Nixon, Pacific Rim, Philomena, Place Beyond the Pines, Prisoners, Rush, Saving Mr. Banks, Short Term 12, Spectacular Now, Spring Breakers, Star Trek Into Darkness, Stories We Tell, The To Do List, Thor: The Dark World, Trance, You're Next, We Are What We Are, Wolf of Wall Street, and World War Z.

Hat tip there to Metacritic.

Keep in mind that I didn't get around to seeing many 2012 movies from last year's wishlist:  Amazing Spider-Man, Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Bourne Legacy, Chronicle, Compliance, Cosmopolis, End of Watch, Farewell My Queen, Flight, Hitchcock, Holy Motors, How to Survive a Plague, The Impossible, John Dies at the End, Killer Joe, Lawless, Not Fade Away, Prometheus, Ruby Sparks, Rust and Bone, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, This is Not a Film, To Rome With Love, and West of Memphis.

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Sunday, December 29, 2013

American Hustle

Friday afternoon, my spouse and I went to see American Hustle, the latest David O. Russell film starring Amy Adams, Christian Bale, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, and Louisville's Jennifer Lawrence.

If you haven't seen the film, but intend to see it, stop reading this post because it includes spoilers.

The film is based on the  late-1970s and early-1980s Abscam scandal featuring political corruption (mostly bribery), which resulted in the conviction of the mayor of Camden NJ (a story-line emphasized in the film), half a dozen members of the House of Representatives, plus a U.S. Senator. The FBI videotaped many of the politicians accepting cash bribes.

Interestingly -- and this is the primary focus of the movie -- the FBI was aided by a colorful con man they employed to help convince the targeted politicians to accept cash in exchange for political favors. The con man, played in the film by Bale, had a British mistress/partner-in-crime (Adams) and a whistle-blowing spouse (whom he described as cuckoo) (Lawrence).

In the film, just about every character is playing some kind of con, ambitiously trying to get ahead in life by deceiving others, cutting corners, or breaking the law. The movie opens with Bale meticulously performing a sophisticated hair styling operation to hide the fact that he is bald on the top of his head. Later, however, the FBI agent (Cooper) is revealed to use small rollers to produce the natural-looking curls he sports throughout the film. Yet, in one key scene, the FBI agent tussles the criminal's comb-over.

The acting is almost uniformly terrific throughout the film. Adams and Bale are especially good. Lawrence is a talented actress, and does a very good job providing the film's comic relief, but I thought she was too young for the part she plays. Lawrence is Bale's aggrieved spouse and they have a son (roughly age 5 or 6) by one of her prior relationships. I suppose she could have been a teenage bride and mother, but the real con man's spouse was about 40 at the time of Abscam and the couple had been married for almost 20 years.

In any case, despite that minor distraction, I've now seen at least seven of Russell's feature films and American Hustle rates among his very best. For my tastes, it is quite difficult to top Three Kings, a movie I've shown in my class on "Global Politics Through Film." The film works as a synecdoche for the Persian Gulf war and has implications for the second given its particular anti-war message in an oil-state setting.

Russell also directed last year's Silver Linings Playbook, which netted Lawrence an Academy Award for Best Actress, and The Fighter, which earned Bale an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Russell was Oscar-nominated for his direction of those two films. I wouldn't be surprised to see this cast and perhaps Russell himself earn some 2013 nominations. Adams should be a very strong candidate for Best Actress.

Four stars for me.

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